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Can offset seriously challenge flexo in package printing?

July 20, 2005

Can offset seriously challenge flexo in package printing?
Sometimes a seemingly minor event points to a wider issue, such as the respective positions of print processes in packaging printing. The event in question was the unfortunate closure of Drent (UK) Ltd., a wholly owned sales and service subsidiary located near Leeds in Yorkshire. (It is looking for new representation.) The official liquidator assigned to supervise the termination of the business blamed falling sales, or rather an absence of them over the past two years. Yet, during the 1990s Drent UK was a star performer. Of course, this coincided with the mass move by forms printers into the full-color direct mail market. Drent’s variable-size Gazelle offset presses were in pole position in terms of this narrow web sector.
The predictable downturn led Drent, like similar manufacturers, to examine the fast-growing labeling and packaging markets. It led to the Vision SMR, the industry’s first shaftless multiprocess press that could convert labels, cartons and flexible packaging to a maximum web width of 20.5". Under a new owner, Drent merged with Goebel’s press division in early 2001. The Darmstadt company has since added the Novaprint 680 to the portfolio, allowing the combination of UV-cured gravure and offset print units to produce short and mid-run shrink sleeve products. In Eerbeek in Holland, the Drent arm has centered production on its patented variable sleeve technology. A seven-unit VSOP 520 offset press with varnishing was launched at Drupa 2004, and presented at the last Labelexpo Americas.
These are all commendable innovations that at least deserve examination by the print sector that Drent is targeting. However, as other press makers are finding, selling highly sophisticated offset presses to packaging printers — as opposed to top-end label converters — is a tough call. Gravure is not yet out of the reckoning at the high-volume end, while the quality and production benefits of offset — even with sleeve plates — comes smack up against a revitalized flexo process, especially UV flexo. Lower capital costs, near-offset print quality and integration within digitized computer-to-plate or sleeve systems offer formidable competition. So while UV flexo lacks the standards based sophistication of offset, its acceptance by cost-driven packaging buyers — even for the most demanding cartons — has underpinned its success. It’s an arguable point of course, made all the more interesting by the introduction of variable-size sleeves. Drent Goebel for one will be anxious to show that a revamped, proven technology offers an alternative to the new contender.